It’s not what happens to us

Sometimes, when I talk to clients or even potential clients, they say things like “I had a great childhood” or “I feel bad because what I went through was nowhere near as bad as you”. But you see, none of that matters.
It’s not what happens to us, but the meaning that our subconscious takes from it that causes the problem. In that context, having a school friend betray you can have just as much of an impact on the rest of your life as being beaten by your stepmother.

You have two different types of memory:
1. The first type is autobiographical memory. This is a chronological memory a bit like the old-fashioned photo albums, or photos on your phone that are sorted in date order. Moments in type are stored in order, connected by sequence. Individual examples of that time are stored as snapshots. These are relatively two-dimensional memories without significance. I went to four different schools as I was growing up. If you asked me which schools I went to and when, I would start with the first, on Anglesey, then move to the second which was in Manchester. To do this I would visualise my first school, and some connected event from the second school. The third school was a primary school back on Anglesey. I am now thinking of the headmaster of that school and the house I lived in. From there I can make my way to the fourth school which was the last one I went to. It’s easy to approach this kind of autobiographical recollection. You simply pull on a thread and see where it leads you.

2. The second type of memory is Episodic. These are memories that are easy to recall because they have some sort of meaning. Unlike Autobiographical memories, they often appear unbidden. Taking the example of my four schools: as I typed episodic memories were popping into my head. My first school made me smile. I remembered the dinner ladies standing at a table with my brother and I after dinner time. The hall had no other kids there. They’d all gone out to play. The dinner ladies had put one of the giant metallic pots they used on the table. This one had custard in it. They were ladling a runny pale yellow custard into our bowls and we were hungrily polishing it off. I was starved as a child. Not because we were poor, but because my stepmother hated me. We had to be invisible or we would get a beating, and she often neglected to feed us. Many years later I found out school knew all about this. So, the memory that I have just described made sense as the dinner ladies were doing their best to feed us up.

It’s the Episodic memory that causes us the problems. It’s that memory that triggers a protective state in your subconscious. It’s that state that disengages your thinking brain and takes control away from you.

Today is my brother’s 48th birthday.

When he was 16 he ran away from home and hitchhiked to London. He lived on the streets for a long time. He got into hard drugs to survive. His life has not been easy. He has a little place of his own now but he still has to take methadone every day. And he drinks. I really have no idea how he survived this long! But he is a survivor my brother. He’s always landed on his feet. We had a similar childhood. This was his response.

My response was to escape by going to Uni.

We all respond to things in different ways.

So remember, it’s not what happens to you that causes the problem. It’s the meaning. And it’s the meaning that interrupts your ability to live your life and be happy.

We can’t change what happened, but we can see it differently. That’s what I do.

2 thoughts on “It’s not what happens to us

  1. Miranda Kate

    Powerful post!

    I went to 6 different schools – 5 between the ages of 9 and 16. I can run both of those methods. Detaching from the meaning is how I have learnt to recover from the trauma (emotional abuse & some physical) as well as reminding myself I was not to blame. And I have stepped away from toxic family members (mostly mother, also sister). Learning mindfulness and perspective change (CBT) through a lot of therapy, both in my early 20s and 6 years in my late 30s & early 40s.

    Survival is a mindset. Through my suicidal moments in my teens I just kept believing it would get better because I knew I would leave home. I told myself that life had to be better than this. That gets more difficult as I’ve moved into middle age, but now I have my own children to hold me in my dark moments.

    Reply
    1. Dawn Post author

      It’s really tough. The brain continually uses stuff in the present to match to these experiences that you had when growing up. As a result, lots happens outside of your conscious control. It is possible to change it though. To reframe and rewrite the meaning in those memories, meaning that present day stuff no longer creates the trigger.

      Hang in there – your determination is off the scale to be where you are today. Can you imagine what you could achieve with that determination if you felt even a little more ok about yourself?

      Thank you for commenting.

      Reply

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